Charles Burns in color! It continues to be a whole new glorious world for the Burns fan. The Hive, the second in a trilogy of luxe comic books that began with 2010’s X’ed Out, revels in both the associative and gross-out potential of color.
The volume opens with a grid of purple and black rectangles, the purple ones stacked in pyramid formation so that they approximate the shape of a hive, which looms over the decrepit quasi-Middle Eastern city wherein our protagonist has found himself waylaid after chasing a ghost cat through a portal in his mom’s basement. Never mind that it’s a shade borrowed from somewhere else in the story – from our hero Doug’s deceased father’s robe, which he pulls on in a moment of distraction before leaving behind life as he knows it.
“Dreaming with eyes open, shuffling images,” Doug recites in a not-too-warmly received Burroughs homage in a punk club, in X’ed Out. It’s the clearest description of what we encounter in this unusual narrative.
Doug is trying to process an unspecified trauma, perhaps due to drug abuse, injury, mental illness or grief. His girlfriend Sarah has disappeared. His dad has wasted away. It would be safe to say that a range of looming crises are competing to send him over the edge.
It’s the late seventies. While the series pays tribute to the nascent punk scene, Doug is getting perilously close to an Elvis-style exit -- all those red pills are making him bloated and sad, with a propensity to burden strange women with his relationship issues.
In the first installment we watched Doug, his head bandaged, trying to make sense of his surroundings as Nitnit, aka Johnny 23, in a dusty, crumbling city beholden to a towering hive. In part two he’s more or less joined its ranks of drones, having gotten a job pushing a maintenance cart, distributing reading material and supplies to the sad eyed “breeders” (aka women) confined to their beds.
Colleen, the girlfriend from X’ed Out, reappears as a distressed breeder in The Hive named Lily. She swells with what I’d guess to be one of those huge red and white splotched eggs under her hospital blanket. The story (and Doug’s subconscious) quickly moves on to another breeder, a quasi-Sarah named Suzy, who is seeking the missing issues of her favorite romance comic.
The cast of characters found in Nitnit land includes mutant, decrepit or aged quasi-ethnic shopkeepers and loiterers, or otherwise quasi-human piglet men and humanoid lizard drones. The creases, scars and raw wounds on their hyper-specific faces contrasts sharply with Nitnit’s smooth (Caucasian) mask face, fixed in an expression of frazzled dismay.
The Hive references the pre-PC ethnic caricatures of Tintin comics and presents an Orientalist fantasy realm that is confusing and disorienting on purpose. In Nitnit, words, faces, roles and customs are indecipherable. Our comfort in recognition is partially dismantled. It looks almost like a place we could inhabit, and yet that only makes it more troubling as we strain to find a way to make sense of the gaps, where it betrays us. Johnny 23’s confusion is ours. Aggro lizard dudes berating you at every turn certainly don’t help.
Back in “reality,” Doug and Sarah love and lose each other in dreams, digressions, reminiscences and sub-plots, their tragic romance playing out by proxy in the pages of an overblown sixties comic called, alternately, Ladies’ Special Dream Man, Throbbing Heart and Young Love.
Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, a menace kept conveniently just out of frame, (as is Doug’s mom) is almost certainly to blame for her disappearance. But we won’t find out exactly what happened till part three, if at all.
Other oddities abound: Doug and Sarah actually begin to morph. They sport the same shoulder length bob with bangs at different junctures in the story -- and then you notice that their faces are drawn the same. Keeping in mind Burns’ fabled meticulousness, there can be no unintended coincidences in a narrative as painstakingly executed as this.
Burns’ clean, highly refined style contributes to an unnerving reading experience when reconciled with the slippery, seething and roiling quality of a story as it’s taking place -- on multiple levels of consciousness, timeframes and planes of existence.
Visual motifs abound: eggs, streams, holes, self-portraits, passageways, incisions -- and thematic ones too: public mortification, pockmarked memory, gaps in time. The image of a flood, seen on his dad’s TV in X’ed Out, reappears in The Hive as a seething morass of puce-colored water. On the title page, Nitnit/Johnny 23 is poised on a rock in the middle of it. Later, Fat Doug rides his bed down it.
The slippage between inside and outside, dream and waking, me and you, past and present, extends even to the dead and the living – illustrated amusingly in the way the lurid foodstuffs in Nitnit land – a grub wrenched out of a rotting schwarma type thing, for example -- wriggle and snarl at you, even as you’re about to eat them.
Burns has incorporated any and all narrative strategies into this saga, in layers upon layers fanning out in all possible directions. We get photography as evidence, comic within a comic, punk cultural history, romance, drug trips, dreams, alternate universe and homage, all working together. For Burns, more is more. A strange thing to say about a 56-page document, but there it is.
The Hive is a “quick read,” obviously. You can get through it in 15 minutes if you have to. But why would you? We’ve got nothing but time till the next one comes out. Burns is making us slow down and savor this morsel of brilliance in a timeframe that starts to even out the ratio of writing time to reading time. If that’s vindication for an author -- one whose visual style incorporates thousands of beautiful hash marks, each tapered perfectly with a tiny brush -- then I’m all for it.
Part three is called “Sugar Skull.”